Enter the Dragon (1973)

 

The power of his shriek alone could defeat you!
The power of his shriek alone could defeat you!

Genre: Action Crime Martial Arts (USA, Hong Kong)

Starring: Bruce Lee ("The Green Hornet" • Fist of Fury), John Saxon (Black Christmas"Falcon Crest"), Jim Kelly (Black Belt JonesThree the Hard Way)

Directed By: Robert Clouse (GymkataThe Game of Death)

Overview: A martial artist joins a tournament on a drug lord’s private island to find the evidence needed to put him away for good.

By the time Bruce Lee started making Enter the Dragon, he was already a famous star. The Americans involved in the production - including director Robert Clouse - didn’t quite know this in the same way that Hong Kong knew this. America could probably recognize Bruce as TV’s Kato from 2 years of “The Green Hornet”, but that’s not quite the silver screen. In the 1994 biography Bruce Lee Fighting Spirit, it’s written that Bruce actually took Robert to see one of his movies to point out that he indeed was kind of a big deal. Regardless of how successful Enter the Dragon would turn out to be, when the project began it was Bruce’s opportunity to become an international star… and it frightened him. But more on Bruce later.

With a lovely flourish of meta-cinema, our hero, Lee (Bruce Lee) is an expert Kung-Fu martial artist and Shaolin disciple. He is approached by a certain Mr. Braithwaite (Geoffrey Weeks), a suited English G-man. He asks Lee to accept an invitation to fight in a martial arts tournament on Mr. Han’s (Kien Shih) private island. Mr. Han is suspected of having a prolific opium trade, and, with Lee’s help, the Brits could get the evidence they need to put Han away. 

Saxon and Kelly, about to kick ass
Saxon and Kelly, about to kick ass

Exceptionally simple as plots go - not to mention the many similarities it shares with Dr. No - what makes Enter the Dragon a little more complex is the additional characters of Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (the indomitable Jim Kelly). They also both want to win the tournament for their own reasons, and Han takes an interest in all three men. For a Kung-Fu movie, the characters of Han and the three contenders are surprisingly well-developed. And, though the writing is as would be expected, there are some brilliant nuggets:

Lee: A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.

Shaolin Abbott: Now, you must remember: the enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives. Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.

Robert Clouse may have been credited as director, but when it came to the fight scenes, Bruce Lee was in charge, even sometimes closing the set to the Americans. Those fight scenes are all impressive and fun, and even sometimes rather brutal, which also takes the frivolity out of the combat and gives the film a more serious tone. I have repeatedly heard people say that the most memorable fight is the final showdown, but I can’t agree. For me it’s one where Lee faces an opponent who cheats and tries to kill him. Lee’s retort is severe, and though not graphic, ends with him quite obviously stepping OUT of the man he just destroyed. Yeah, kinda awesome.

A wicked throne and some wicked ladies: 2 reasons never to leave your private island
A wicked throne and some wicked ladies: 2 reasons never to leave your private island

In my reading of Bruce Lee Fighting Spirit, I also learned about some intense conflict on set. Writer Michael Allin didn’t seem to be much of a fan of Bruce, and he would intentionally write lines that included frequent instances of the letter ‘R’. This way, with Bruce’s Hong Kong accent, he would sound silly. The character of Mr. Braithwaite, the contact who gives Lee his noble mission, is one such instance of a name specifically chosen to cause Bruce to stumble over pronunciation. There was more, less overt conflict on set as well. So many extras were actual triad gang members that when the final outdoor battle took place, the extras saw this as an opportunity to settle the scores with rival gangs. To closely paraphrase the book: the fighting continued on long after the cameras stopped rolling.

No, Enter The Dragon may not be Cinema with a capital C – it’s a low budget B-grade Kung-Fu movie – but it did extremely well and still holds up. It’s far more deserving of its title as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die than plenty of films on that list. Not only was it the film that proved to Hong Kong, to the world, and to Bruce Lee that he had made it to ‘world-class’, but Enter The Dragon was an important addition in legitimizing Hong Kong’s film exports to the planet, not to mention being extremely influential on the genre. And both Bruce and Jim Kelly also exude some elements of legendary presence, and Enter the Dragon showcases this quite well.

 Honestly, anyone with FLAMES in the background all these years later NEEDS to be taken seriously!
Honestly, anyone with FLAMES in the background all these years later NEEDS to be taken seriously!

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 7 Script: 7 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 78% (An Impressive Cinematic Entry Indeed)
Aftertaste:

There’s also a younger Bolo Yeung to note, now famous for many roles in the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme. On a less than pleasant note, I saw this the day before Jim Kelly passed away. Jim Kelly has long ago been a mainstay of my weekly Hecklefest Saturday Night. I certainly felt his passing.

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